WILKES-BARRE — The administration’s decision to deny city Controller Darren Snyder access to the proposals to develop the former Hotel Sterling property was done to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, Mayor Tony George said.
Snyder, who was elected to the post and took office in 2016, has the responsibility to audit the project proposed for the site and shouldn’t be involved in choosing the developer or seeing the proposals until they become public, the mayor explained.
“What if he’s picking the person? That could be a conflict in my eyes,” George said Friday.
But he said it was a different story for city council members to play dual roles by sitting on the committee to go over the proposals and rely on the information obtained during the review process to vote on the project to develop the property.
“There’s no conflict there, because they’re going to chose anyway,” George said. “They make the ultimate decision anyway.”
The committee assembled by the administration is in the process of reviewing the plans submitted by the two developers who responded to the Request for Proposals by the Feb. 1 deadline. The group, including councilwoman Beth Gilbert and council chairman Tony Brooks, will make a recommendation to the mayor who must present the proposal to city council to approve the sale of city-owned property.
The mayor said Snyder would be able to look at the proposals after the developer is selected for the prime piece of downtown real estate.
By then it could be too late and Snyder wondered if the administration was trying to hide something.
“It’s kind of suspect to me,” Snyder said.
Furthermore, the mayor’s explanation carried no weight with the controller. “It became a conflict of interest after I pressed the issue,” Snyder said.
Snyder brought his denial to the attention of city council at its Thursday night public meeting. He said twice his request to see the proposals was refused, first by the administration and again by the mayor.
As the third branch of city government and under the Charter in the city’s Code of Ordinances, the controller has the power to “examine, audit and verify all books, records and accounts” that are under the control of mayor or council and, in order to carry out the duties of the office, he has access to them “at any time,” Snyder pointed out.
“I’m an elected official with the city’s best interest in mind. Why not show me the proposals?” Snyder said.
“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t make for a good working environment,” he said.
City Attorney Tim Henry told council during the meeting that “proposals as of this date would’t be public record” and would become public once a proposal is selected.
Still Snyder drew support from council.
“At what point will you bring Mr. Snyder in? He’s got a background in real estate. He certainly can possibly help. I think it would be a wise decision to bring him on,” said councilman Mike Merritt.
“I would feel more comfortable having him on the committee,” Gilbert said.
“Myself included,” added council vice chairman Mike Belusko.
“I’ll take it to the mayor,” responded city Administrator Ted Wampole.
Earlier Wampole said it was the administration’s decision not to provide the proposals to Snyder.
“At this point we just received them and we want to take the time, from the administration’s perspective, to review them. That’s our prerogative,” Wampole said.
“Where does that say that that’s excluded from records and accounts at any time?” Snyder asked Wampole.
At no time did Wampole or anyone from council bring up the issue of a conflict of interest involving Snyder.
Snyder said Friday that he spoke to former controllers and was informed that they were never denied access to the proposals.
The fact that two private individuals who were not elected and do not serve as the watchdog for the city taxpayers would see the proposals before him bothered Snyder. One representative each from the Diamond City Partnership and the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber, both involved in downtown development, will join Wampole, Gilbert, Brooks, city Director of Operations Butch Frati and city Capital Projects Program Manager Joyce Zaykowski on the the committee.
“I guess private interests are more important than public interests,” Snyder said.